They'll be dancing in the street

Once a pagan festival, the carnival before Lent is now a glorious affair in many countries.

Carnival, the end-of-winter festival inherited from the ancient world, is taking place today, tomorrow and on Shrove Tuesday, with masked balls, parades and wild festivities lighting up cities all over Europe and the Americas. While the British are feeding themselves up for the rigours of Lent by eating pancakes, the Catholic countries will be reaching the end of the most ebullient and exuberant party in the Christian calendar.

Having failed to suppress this pagan festival in the Middle Ages, the Church was wise enough to adopt it as its own. The name carnival - from the Latin carne vale, "Goodbye to meat" - refers to the abstinence of Lent but has come to stand for the big blow-out of the day before. In some places this blow-out used to last all the way from Christmas day to Ash Wednesday; these days it is generally restricted to the days immediately before the Wednesday.

The traditional highlight of the feast was always the fatted cow - the Boeuf Gras - from which stems the name of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.

Despite the religious connotations, it is the pre-Christian elements underpinning the event that will be dominant this week. The wearing of masks and disguises is a direct throw-back to ancient Roman festivals in which social and sexual distinctions were temporarily over-ridden. With its emphasis on transvestism, erotic costumes, scantily clad dancers and flowing alcohol, the occasion has re-acquired more than a hint of its old Bacchanalian flavour.

The whole of the Catholic Mediterranean has been celebrating Carnival in its current form for centuries; the Nice Carnival for example dates back to the thirteenth century.

In Venice, where the atmosphere is less that of drunken revelry than of sophisticated intrigue, the carnival also has a long tradition. As well as harlequins and incognito strangers in black hoods and chalk white masks, the streets of Venice in the next couple of days will offer Renaissance madrigals, Commedia dell'Arte performances and puppet shows. On Tuesday night, participants from the local balls and neighbourhood parties will finally return to St Mark's Square for the ringing of bells at midnight to signal the end of the carnival and the beginning of Lent.

Carnival is a time when even the Germans throw off their reserve. In the city of Cologne, Weiberfastnacht ("women's carnival"), which took place last Thursday, is when women temporarily take control of the streets, running around town cutting off men's ties with scissors. Tomorrow, though, is Cologne's biggest day. Rose Monday will see a colossal parade of floats and giant figures, accompanied by hundreds of horses and possibly millions of spectators throwing sweets and bunches of flowers.

However, among the racially mixed communities across the Atlantic, carnival has taken on some even more bizarre, exaggerated forms. This weekend New Orleans is already an orgy of partying which is set to climax on Fat Tuesday, when massive parades, including the two most famous - Zulu and Rex - will pass though town. With the different krewes (parading groups) competing to parody each other more outrageously, as well as an insane amount of drinking, bead- flinging, flambeaux-carrying, chanting and other arcane traditions, this is by far the most anarchic party held in the United States each year.

At 2am tomorrow morning, local time, the greatest annual party in the Caribbean, that of Trinidad and Tobago, kicks off with the celebration known as Jouvert. In the pre-dawn hours, Ole mas revellers will take to the streets, dressed in creations of rags, mud and cast-off clothing. Steel bands with as many as 120 players - as well as giant DJ trucks with blaring speakers - begin delivering the calypso and soca music that will drive 48 hours of non-stop dancing.

The Brazilian Carnival, though, is surely the most spectacular street- party on Earth. In the days of slavery, masters adopted the custom of allowing their slaves to run freely for the three days prior to Ash Wednesday. This practice led to scenes of mad revelry that continued long after the abolition of slave-owning.

The most glittering single event in the whole pre-Lent celebration is the Samba School Parade in Rio de Janeiro. The samba schools taking part, each containing thousands of participants in fabulous costumes, are made up of poor people from the vast city slums. For many of these, the carnival is overwhelmingly the highlight of their year, if not their entire lives.

Britain celebrates, page 2

GETTING THERE

l Cologne. pounds 97 (to the end March) with Lufthansa or BA: German Travel Centre: 0181-429 2900. Eurostar: 0345 303030.

l Rio De Janeiro. From pounds 500. TAP 0171-839 1031; Iberia: 0171-830 0011; Journey Latin America: 0181- 747 8315

l Trinidad and Tobago. Charters from pounds 345; scheduled from pounds 539. Trailfinders: 0171 9375400.

l Venice. From pounds 150 (to 21 March) with Alitalia. Trailfinders: 0171- 937 5400

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas
footballChelsea vs West Ham live kicks off coverage of all 10 of Boxing Day matches
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Finacial products from our partners
Property search

Simon Read: The point of having protection insurance? The right cover can help reduce your financial concerns at a time of extreme worry

In May Nicola Groves got a massive shock. The 45-year-old mother of two was told, bluntly, that she had breast cancer. "When I heard the words, 'You do have breast cancer and you are going to lose your breast', I felt as if time stood still," she says.

Mark Dampier: Maybe boom, maybe bust, but we'll probably just muddle along

It's that time again when the media looks back over the past year and forward to the next. I am reminded of an old film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). Near the end of the film a newspaper prints two headlines – which one it uses will depend on whether the world is saved or doomed.

Sainsbury’s sank 7 per cent to 234p; Tesco fell 3.2 per cent to 180.2p ; and Morrisons dropped 5 per cent to 159.9p

Money Insider: Supermarkets: the real challenger banks

The supermarket banks have always excelled at offering simple, no nonsense products, and savings accounts is another area in which they fare well

Pat and Richard Astbury at their home in Norton Canes, Staffordshire. They have benefitted from the Community Energy Project aimed at helping council tenants with their energy bills. They have had solar panels installed.

Locals in Staffordshire to save hundreds after new council-backed project to install solar panels

The sun is shining on people who struggle to heat their homes and it’s thanks to a sense of community

Gross household debt reached a historic high of around 160 per cent of combined incomes in 2007

Simon Read: Give people struggling with debt some breathing space

Struggling people need help, understanding and forbearance, not ill-thought-out pronouncements

A person walks through the City of London during the early morning rush hour in London

Simon Read: Caught up in the scandal about leaks at the regulator

You won’t find me bashing the banks for the sake of it, but sadly they’ve deserved all the criticism that’s been sent their way in recent years

There were around 750,000 victims of mobile phone theft in England and Wales last year, according to official figures

Money alert: Stolen mobile phones

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice: 'The injustice of shock bills for crime victims must end. The Government must stand up for consumers and cap bills from lost or stolen phones at £50'

Indian workers boil sugarcane juice to make jaggery, a traditional cane sugar, at a jaggery plant in Muradnagar, Uttar Pradesh's Ghaziabad district

Mark Dampier: A hot investment story is taking shape as India lets the light in

Stirring the pot: the Indian Government’s reforms of labour rules offer hope of a brighter future for businesses 

An AA patrol man helping a woman whose scooter had broken down.

Bargain hunter: Whisk up those leftovers instead of just throwing them in the bin

Knight of the road, look out: you’ve got a new rival 

How to raise money for charity this Christmas

There are so many ways you can raise money - and awareness - for charity. Rob Griffin explains how easy it is to donate and reap financial rewards

Simon Read: The Chancellor has stamped on an unfair tax. But will the delight of homebuyers mean misery for others?

Were you surprised by the sudden reform of the rules for stamp duty on property purchases? I certainly was. I've been calling for ages for a change in the tax to make it more fair – and, at a stroke, George Osborne did just that on Wednesday in his Autumn Statement.

Santander, whose ads have been fronted by the Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill, was among the banks where there were potential pitfalls with shared licences

Best savings rates are not all they might seem

Consumers can sometimes think they are shopping around for a rewarding account when in one important aspect, writes Samantha Downes, they are not
The sunlit uplands: switching out of a final salary pension may seem like madness, but there could be cases where it makes sense

Gold-plated pensions – the key to retirement freedom?

With some people are weighing up whether they will be better off cashing in their final salary pension next spring, Samantha Downes asks the experts

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

    Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

    The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

    £43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all